A Better Mousetrap

It is a balmy Southern California evening as I sit on the porch to write this post. The seasons are clearly changing as we slip further into spring, which definitely feels like the beginning of summer.

The harbingers of change continue to abound for the housing industry, signaling the stirrings of a return to better health. Shaken and awakened as we are by the tumult of the last year, especially the last six months, all eyes are on the future: when the recovery finally takes hold in earnest, what will it look like for the multifamily industry?

One thing is becoming abundantly clear: the next generation of denser housing will definitely not be “your father’s Oldsmobile,” a phrase made particularly poignant by the fact that grand old nameplate no longer exists. The paradigm that will emerge from the shake-up is one of renewed vigor and innovation in response to startlingly different market demands.

Housing is product. There, I said it. It is mass produced (though on a smaller scale than, say, the afore-mentioned automobile) and marketed, in an increasingly competitive marketplace. We, as designers, must seek solutions that help our clients to find and maintain the edge.

For the foreseeable future, the places we build must bring great value. That is, within each of the typical product thresholds (walk-up, wrap and podium), it is more necessary than even to not only be in the game, but be on top of our game.

The cost of the “stick and bricks” of each of the afore-mentioned genres are relatively fixed. Therefore, within each area, it will be necessary to search, as perhaps never before, for solutions that rigorously pursue the values of the developers and operators. Which features will most successfully attract and retain the most residents? Which will simplify and streamline the operations processes? Which will be the most efficient to build?

The housing bubble stretched the sensibilities of what might work, because, for a brief moment, almost anything worked. Today, not so much. It is true that the burgeoning condo market had an indelible effect on the expectations of renters, as the fit and finish of almost everything approached “condo specs.” With multitudes of condominium projects entering the market as “shadow rentals,” the options available to leasing clients remain at an unhistorical high. Add to that slipping rental rates and occupancies, and we have quite an issue on our hands.

But this could be a good thing. Developers, of course, must continue to develop, even if it is at a wildly reduced pace. For those in the apartment business, models must be found that can stand against the rental condo market for the next several years, but with fundamentals that make them worthwhile to build.

Where do the answers lie? Generally speaking, it is in the combination of density, efficiency, flexibility and value. Within each type, this will mean different solutions. High-rise concrete rental communities are pretty much off the table for the moment, which means we will see several years of increasingly sophisticated mid-rise products, in all but the most urban markets.

The new communities we will see will be focused more than ever on the utilization of emerging technologies in wood construction, especially in the basic systems needed to power and service these structures. Pre-fabrication and modularity may finally see its well-deserved place in the sun. Systems for heating, cooling, and energy generation will be more and more seen as integrated elements in a new generation of “ultimate living machines.” Because rents will be so competitive, the costs of renting must also be kept to a minimum, and this will be inextricably linked to resource consumption.

Small, as you may have heard, will be the new “black.” However, the new small will be a feature-intensive environment that was rarely even dreamed about in the pre iPod Nano era. Yes, we can do more with less—but it has to do it extremely well.

Multifamily structures are enormously complicated machines. As with the best cars available today, these communities will rely more and more on the performance qualities of the hardware than on the sex appeal of the skin. High performance will become sexy because of the returns.

I’m glad we still have a drawing board, because, believe me, we’re hitting it like no other time in recent memory. The future is a great big place, full of unimaginable possibility.

Let’s get on board. The train is leaving the station.

(Daniel Gehman is principal at Thomas Cox Architects. He can be reached at DanielG@tca-arch.com)